Image Description: A woman wearing a mask being confronted by shadow figures
Back when I used to have Tinder, the most common greeting I received was:
‘Hi Jackie Chan.’ ‘OMG Jackie Chan.’
‘I’ve never had an Asian before. I’d like to try it.’
Whilst the former was a pathetic attempt at a joking association based on my appearance and their clearly advanced awareness of popular culture, the wording of the latter made it seem as though I was a meal or an exotic cuisine. The retorts of ‘Hi Gandalf’ or ‘I’ve never tried jerk before’ never hit in the same way. What was most shocking to me at the time was the sheer volume of identical messages, so much so that I was addressed more as Jackie Chan or an exotic product than a simple, ‘Hi’.
Almost every time I have been alone in the city of London on the way to visit a friend, I have been met by men who unwarrantedly come up to me – especially at night – saying (*painfully slowly and over-enunciated*): ‘Where are YOU from?’, ‘Niii haooo maaaa’, ‘You speak English?’, ‘You pretty’, ‘Are. You. Lost?’. Nothing gave me greater satisfaction than seeing the look of absolute shock on their faces when I answered the first question in a thickly coated Aussie accent I put on, ‘Straya, MATE’, as I stormed off.
They’re the model minority; they put their heads down, work hard, and don’t complain.
What I was witnessing, in all these messages and interactions, was a pattern of male societal behaviour – a deeply rooted cultural consciousness – that continues to reduce Asians through painfully limited stereotypes, that continues to exoticise them as the oriental ‘other’, and that is haunted by histories of systematic racism, colonialism and hyper-sexualisation. One that thinks it’s funny to ask if my white boyfriend is ‘charged by the hour’, or ask for my passport instead of my driver’s licence for proof of identity, or glare and cough on me for being a walking virus or alien in my own home.
Too often, these incidents, this behaviour, is normalised and swept under the rug. It is funny to make fun of Asians, to sexualise them because they don’t care, they don’t FEEL. They’re the model minority; they put their heads down, work hard, and don’t complain. They’re submissive in bed; don’t worry, they won’t argue or fight back. They’re small and cute, almost invisible.
I’ve heard it ALL.
It is such behaviour, such stereotyping, hyper-sexualising and infantilising of Asian women, that is all the more painful in light of the recent rise in hate crimes against Asians around the Western world, epitomised in the brutal shooting of the Asian-American women in Atlanta.
So where does this deeply embedded and terrifyingly normalised consciousness come from?
In one sense, it is very much historical. Like many parts of the world, many parts of Asia were subject to Western Imperialism: its desire to conquer and rule, its paternalistic perception of inferior colonial subjects, its desire for the exotic goods of the East. From the British Empire’s territories in Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Hong King, France’s colonies in present-day Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, the Spanish territories in the Philippines, even to the intervention of Western countries such as America in parts of Asia during the Cold War, the impact of colonialism is widespread.
Indeed, it was the Western world and these Empires that constructed the prevailing myth of East Asian peoples as ‘The Yellow Peril’: faceless, primitive humans. Almost ironically, this myth originated from the immigration of Asian ‘aliens’ to the very countries that had themselves invaded parts of Asia and continued well into the 20th-century. In Canada, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923 prevented all Chinese immigration, with few exceptions, and was repealed in 1947. In America, along with the Chinese Massacre of 1871 – in which 500 white individuals stormed Old Chinatown in Los Angeles, killing and hanging Chinese immigrants – racist political pressure prompted the Immigration Act of 1917 and Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, barring immigration from the Asia-Pacific zone, altered in 1952 by an immigration quota scheme with preference determined by desirable ethnic groups. proliferation In Australia, the Yellow Peril novels, such as White of Yellow? (1927) and The Yellow Wave (1895) expressed not only the fear of racial invasion but also the fear of Asian sexual voraciousness and immorality, echoed in Britain. This facilitated the White Australia Policy that sought to legally ban or limit non-white immigration from 1901 to as recent as 1975, with current senator Pauline Hanson famously asserting in her Maiden Speech in 1996 that Australia was being ‘swamped by Asians’.
This list doesn’t even begin to capture the string of films, as well as pop songs, music videos, books, that all draw on this popular aesthetic of Asian women as sexual, submissive, infantile creatures
In conjunction with this, the many histories of War in Asia have facilitated the prevailing hyper-sexualised perception of Asian women as prostitutes. Not only by the histories of comfort women in Imperial Japan (women and girls as young as 14, mostly from Korea and China, forced to be sex slaves for the Imperial Army), the American military had also established sexual comfort stations for U.S. troops in the 1940s in Japan, and throughout the 20th-century in South Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Thus, such objectifying, hyper-sexualised perceptions of Asian women have been actively created by Western countries such as America. What’s more, not only have they been perpetuated by history, but by the aestheticisation of Asian women in popular culture that has continued to normalise such hyper-sexualisation. This seems to be obvious in the musical Miss Saigon (based on Puccini’s Madame Butterfly) that follows Kim, a Vietnamese bargirl (in Butterfly, a Japanese geisha), who is used and abandoned by an American soldier during the Vietnam War, and Stanley Kubrick’s Vietnam War film, Full Metal Jacket (1987), bolstering stereotypes of Asian women as sex workers and cementing the deeply problematic yet colloquial phrase, ‘Me so horny. Me love you long time.’ More recently, problematic films that have played into this pop-culture stereotype include Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Year of the Dragon (1985), Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), Rush Hour 2 (2001), Ex Machina Mean Girls (2004), among others. This list doesn’t even begin to capture the string of films, as well as pop songs, music videos, books, that all draw on this popular aesthetic of Asian women as sexual, submissive, infantile creatures
Although we speak of the ‘rise’ in Asian Hate Crimes in the past year, this issue is nothing new. It is shocking, but not surprising. It is embedded in the very fabric of our inherently racist, patriarchal societies that have been founded on white supremacy. It is time for all of us, especially those who continue to enjoy aspects of Asian cultures that they pick and choose, to stand up to such a normalised, racist consciousness that has led to this violence. To speak out against those little comments, those off-handed remarks and ‘jokes’, because it is a fundamental issue that is ingrained in all our psyches.
Here is a poem I’d like to leave you with, written following an incident of racial and sexual harassment.
Rip out my native tongue
From the spine
From my roots
Give you your con-TRAP-tion
Your vocal contraception
To let me echo you.
But then, the silence.
Her voice is stolen.
Her tongue is dead.
The thoughts that lay inside her head,
Are trapped, are gone.
This hollow doll,
Made in the east,
Sold in the west.
See it, touch it,
It cannot scream,
Or make a sound
In your tongue,
It has none!
Image Credit: Tian Chen